Write at your own peril

Pakistani journalists are no strangers to danger. In the old days, they faced threats from the government, military establishment, political parties, goons, mafia and odd militant groups but now things have changed for the worse. From their phones being tapped by state agencies to their movements being monitored both by state and non-state actors, not only are their lives devoid of any privacy but also those who have received threats from either state or non-state actors, have to constantly look over their shoulder. When journalists become news themselves, it shows how precarious the situation really is.

We have known for a long time now that non-state actors have become as powerful as state actors. The Express Media Group was targeted by the Taliban twice in the span of a few months. The state was not willing to guarantee its security so the group's liberal English daily, Express Tribune, had to change its policy. It stopped criticising the Taliban.

March 28 further proved the power and outreach of militant groups. Journalist Raza Rumi was attacked in the city of Lahore. For many of us, it was an attack that was too close to home. Raza's survival was a miracle. His 25-year-old driver lost his life while his guard was injured. Punjab Police recently arrested six suspects belonging to the banned terrorist outfit Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) who confessed to their involvement in Raza's assassination attempt. Raza is not sure if they will be prosecuted and sentenced.

On the heels of Raza's attack, Secretary General, South Asian Free Media Association (SAFMA) and TV anchor Imtiaz Alam received a death threat. The briefing he got from intelligence and police sources was that he was among the top few whose life is under threat from extremists. Alam has been incarcerated under both military and civilian regimes in the past. His role in SAFMA, and his pursuit of peace between Pakistan and India and regional cooperation, has not been seen in good light by the establishment, nor is he liked by Pakistani militant groups. "I've been attacked several times in the past but I did not let these threats come in the way of my profession. Being vocal and straightforward has become troublesome these days," says Alam.

On April 19, Hamid Mir was shot six times in the heart of Karachi. He survived, and is recovering in a hospital. Hamid Mir works for Jang Group, the largest media group in the country, and hosts a top-rated talk show 'Capital Talk' on Geo, Pakistan's largest private TV channel. According to his family, friends and colleagues, he was under threat from the ISI. His brother, Amir Mir, made this public on Geo the day his brother was attacked. Following these allegations against the ISI, Geo and Jang Group have come under fire from the military and rival media houses. In any other country, the security of journalists would never have been a divisive issue, but in Pakistan, rival media groups - including Express - started a vicious campaign against him.

Some people believe that the recent attacks on journalists will pave the way for more censorship. Renowned journalist Najam Sethi thinks it is not necessarily true. He feels the media in every country has always exercised a degree of self-censorship in matters relating to their respective intelligence agencies but in Pakistan, a small section of the English media has often crossed such 'red lines'.

Alam recently resigned from Express News after he was asked to do a pre-recorded show instead of a live one, with guests who are known to be at the forefront of a campaign against Hamid Mir and Geo. "Either I stood with Hamid Mir, a victim of press freedom, raised the banner of freedom of expression and followed my conscience, or became subject of infighting between two media houses. I chose to resign in favour of the security of journalists and freedom of expression," says Alam. He believes that every media house and journalist should unite in the face of such adversity, because sooner or later, they too will come under attack from those who want the media to follow diktats of hardliners.

The choice for Pakistani journalists is limited: Silence, leave the media industry in the country, toe the line of the powers-that-be or do your work honestly, but at a very heavy price-the risk of losing your life. The truth is that unless the state itself does not come out in full support of the media, journalists can only do so much.

(Originally published in India Today)

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